BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): Al Davison’s (2003) The Spiral Cage

6 December 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

In a well-managed world, we’d need no heroics.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Al Davison’s (2003)[2] The Spiral Cage

This graphic autobiography tells the story of a now-Buddhist, martial artist who overcame (along with the support of his family and more than a dozen operations) spina bifida.

Three things particularly stand out for me[3] in this book (the bullying, the forefronting of Davison’s lived condition, and the episode with Mary), but I should say something first about the drawing style. I think Davison may have compiled this book from various journals and bits and pieces while, at times, also providing connective tissue to make the narrative hang together. As a work from many moments, and thus many moods, it covers a wide range of styles: sometimes photorealistic, sometimes more cartoony, &c. But most of the time, Davison stuffs the page with frames. It gives an often wearing, slow pace to the book, which seems appropriate in an autobiography where the protagonist child had to pull himself slowly across the floor on a pillow. Also, as someone often overlooked as “a cripple,” each moment of offered speaking can become so cramped with desire to speak that too much comes out—or, more precisely, more than the listener anticipated or feels willing, able, or prepared to deal with. I don’t think Davison intended this but it does a lovely job of supporting the at times dramatized parts of the autobiography where Davison’s isolation (or the unwillingness of others to take him seriously as a human being) come to the fore.

One thing that really stands out in this book (set in England): bully “cripples” (including physical assault) really seems a thing over there. Of course, Davison has selected episodes from his life to depict—though clearly, if simply to go outside carried a threat of violence (even death), that will obviously figure heavily in one’s experience of life. The scenes, however, have a curious quality, in that they do not operate conventionally as sympathy generators. In his younger years, the images of bullying may call forth in a reader a conventional “oh, that’s awful,” but later on, Davison’s use of self-defence turns the tide on his would-be attackers, and the scenes function more as (rather macho) “don’t fuck with me” gestures.

At the end of the book, Davison includes a little piece about his capacity for (and perhaps prowess at) sex. Within the book itself, Davison confronts a citizen by showing himself more able physically than the citizen. These gestures, if not the book at large (at least in part), all amount to warnings or challenges to “don’t think I can’t”. One can understand an impulse behind that—having heard too often from the world, “you can’t”—and it also presupposes that prejudice in the reader. In other words, I don’t recall anyone in the book who approaches the “disability” from an “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what this condition does and does not enable or disable” as opposed to “I will assume without evidence that you cannot”. One of the more ghastly frames, for instance, includes a very self-satisfied English woman, speaking to Davison’s mother (who lost 60 pounds carrying him around at one point, because he could not walk), declaring it would have been kinder to not let him live. By contrast, Davison’s now life-partner specifically declares that she finds his “misshapen” body and surgical scars attractive. If others find “his condition” revolting, she finds it attractive—really, the same kind of emphasis, but with a positive spin. It would seem Davison himself occupies a similar headspace.

I hardly mean this as a surprise or a criticism—he did, after all, not only live with this reality in the world around him (full of judging people), but also in the loving (almost saintly) atmosphere of his family, where “his condition” obviously had an enormous presence. What I like about this resembles that critique of “colour-blindness” that currently infects the dominating discourse, i.e., that (political) desire to strip people of all specificity (ethnicity, gender, sexuality) and to insist on treating them simply as a “human being”. Besides that Michelle Alexander in her (2010)[4] The New Jim Crow offers several excellent reasons why this proves permanently problematic, the rarely addressed question “what does human being mean” defaults (in the United States) specifically to “white” and “male”. Unless we give up every conceit to know, in advance, what a human being “is,” so that we never know what we speak of until actually standing face-to-face with another human being, then the desire to ignore the concrete specificity of each human being simply paves the way to a covert patriarchal racism. So, in Davison’s book, even if the emphasis on “his condition” at times seems to generate something too much like a superhero narrative, i.e., a narrative that grounds his success on (literally) heroic effort on his part , the sheer forefronting of his concrete and specific experience as a human being stands out as valuable.

So, if the bullying and emphasis on Davison’s exceptionalism[5] stand out as two features, a most haunting sequence (for me) occurs in a very short (three page) episode. Davison as a boy sits next to a (slightly older) girl who seems to have severe cerebral palsy. She speaks, but Davison (the adult artist) presents the sounds as garbled. The boy informs the nurses (out of the frame) that the girl may need to go to the bathroom, describing her as “shmelly”. Out of the frame, the girl gets taken away, and we hear only the nurse’s alarmed report about “haemorrhaging” and the need to call a doctor. In the next, one-page frame, the boy sits somewhere, while an out-of-sight adult asks if he understands that the girl will not ever return, that she died.

Unfortunately, Davison gives us essentially no details about this girl’s life. All he permits us to know of her: cerebral palsy has her twisted up, she can barely communicate (or perhaps not at all), and then she dies. Whatever impulse a reader might feel to avoid “mere pity,” the reader would then have to supply every other detail herself. Did this girl have the same kind of loving and supportive family life that Davison did?[6] Or did her family deem her an unbearable nuisance and burden? We never see her parents—a nurse and an alluded to doctor make for the adults associated with her. Did she know any others?

I would like to think Davison in no way tries to make a moral comparison here—that he (whether through force of will or family support or both) managed to overcome the challenge thrown across his path by life, while this girl failed to. But even if he does not intend this, within the context of the book, I see two basic narrative functions it fulfils. For one, it throws into sharp relief the “stakes” in his own life. We don’t know why the girl starts haemorrhaging—it just seems something that happens—but it may come about (given the hospital setting) due to a surgery performed on her. Thus, as a “symbol” she illustrates the grave risks that Davison faced with multiple surgeries—risks that he survived but the girl did not.

However—and again because Davison does not seem to provide any more detail but not only drops this episode without warning into the book but also allows it to pass out of the book without having an further narrative autobiographical consequences[7]—it does not seem to resonate principally in this way (as a commentary upon the British medical system or the risks of multiple surgeries faced by Davison as a boy). But if we do read the episode as this, one thing remains: he survived, and she did not (and/or the British medical system killed her, but not him).

Even if we belligerently read this as sheer luck—and I don’t think Davison’s text encourages such a reading—it still veers toward an uncomfortable piece of exceptionalism. As I corrected extensively (from example, here) from Canetti’s (1960)[8] diffuse rambling in Crowds and Power, those who survive disasters at times come to view themselves as elect in some way: just as Abraham, Noah, Josephus, and the Puritans[9] in the wake of the syphilis epidemic in northern Europe came to. Davison does not seem to suggest the pathological elements of this survivorship, but his heavy emphasis here on overcoming and triumph (on the part of his sister as well) at the very least echoes and resonates with that discourse. At root: he survived, the girl did not.

You could rather easily convince me that Davison does not intend to contrast the girl’s “fate” with his own—in other words, that he principally desires simply to record a traumatic episode from his childhood—but it seems unreasonable or naïve to expect readers not to notice a contrast or (even less reasonably) not to infer anything from that contrast. Not that she deserves to die—or that we should fire up all of those repugnant eugenic arguments, at least two of which Davison repeats in his book—and not even (at least not exactly) that the emphasis on effort and will on his part implies that she didn’t try hard enough (or lacked the will to try hard enough).[10]

Rather, at root, the text gives little more than (or perhaps not even the minimum) to avoid coming away with a sense of the enormous unfairness that “fated” the girl to her situation in the first place. Having shown us multiple times already how cruelly people respond to “cripples” in his book—to a “cripple” like himself who presents to the world as more or less ambulatory (if strangely so), whose face at least has stereotypical markers of “cuteness,” and whose manner of speaking (during the episodes showing him as a child) also have conventional markers of “cuteness” (i.e., Davison writes him as using words like “pwease” and “shmelly”). By contrast, Davison does not show the girl as ambulatory at all (she may have almost no freedom of motion), her appearance has the distortions of cerebral palsy that do not align with conventional appearances of cuteness, and her speech gets transcribed as unintelligible.

And she dies, presumably painfully of a haemorrhage either somehow resulting from her condition or due to some less than perfectly accomplished medical procedure. The horror of her circumstance does not need to centre on pity about cerebral palsy, even if that makes for the path of least resistance. The vulnerability of her circumstance seems exponentially worse. Whereas little Alan can express his needs, the girl must rely on another child to speak for her within a context of adult negligence. Where little Alan can at least try to defend himself against or evade any attackers, the girl seems utterly defenceless, if no one will stick up for her. And no one—unlike the adult Alan who finds a woman who finds his specific body not just appealing but sexually attractive—expresses anything resembling affection for the girl due to her cuteness—not even the reading, I would wager.

Davison puts us in the unenviable position of having little more than abject pity for her circumstance, however welcome or inappropriate that might be. And that she exists only to die (in the narrative), unloved, unable to express her wants or needs, and as seemingly little more than a risk liability for the medical professionals who handle her mounts a titanic inner howl of protest against a world or fate or nature that allows her existential human condition to come down to this.

At this point, one could rail against a “god” that would do such a thing, and thus all of the accompanying and incoherent apologetics to “rationalise” such creative malfeasance. The girl’s fate here makes more sense and a better argument for the absence of any such cruel deity—ignoring, again, all of the sadistic and repulsive apologetics[11] one might offer. But, happily—or perhaps happily makes a poor choice of words—reality (or nature or the world) challenges us with the more aggravating[12] but hopeful prospect of its “culpability”.

The qualities of Davison’s life—a combination of luck, unending familial support, personal willpower and, to some extent, a condition less severe or more manageable than the girl’s—shows that the elements exist, if only the social will particularly, to find a way to engender a high quality of life for all human beings. It seems unfortunate that Davison (or life) requires such vast portions of luck, familial effort, and individual perseverance to arrive at such a quality of life; clearly, the girl had not enough of this social support in her life.

I have a hard time reading this book as about anything but her, in the final analysis. Davison talks about the spiral cage of DNA as imprisoning him (or trying to), and yet this girl, twisted around herself, seems a more visible and literal image of someone caught in a spiral cage. Somewhere in a couple of Brecht plays, some grunts remark, “There’d be no need for heroics if things were well-managed.” In a properly arranged social world, no one would have to resort to Davison’s heroics to achieve a satisfying human life; rather, the world would have the support required so that even this girl would go to her grave with a satiated, wistful sigh, “Ah, life.”[13]


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Davison, A. (2003). The spiral cage, Active Images, Astral Gypsy Press, pp. 1–144.

[3] If I disregard the plumping Alan Moore gives the book in the introduction, and the rather relentlessly (I mean, unconvincingly) grinning way that Davison draws Maggie, his now-life partner.

[4] Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness: The New Press.

[5] I don’t want to take anything away from his own accomplishments, and it also becomes very easy to centre all agency on him, even though he includes his family (especially his mother and sister) as extremely supportive elements, most of all during his earliest childhood. But also, a small army of doctors performed corrective surgery—even if Davison seems to focus more explicitly on medical practitioners who insisted (to his mother) that he had a hopeless case. Quite obviously, vast and crushing loneliness played a huge role in his life at many points, especially when grown, along with the sheer fact that his body would not for a long time express his will as he desired. I doubt, in any case, that he would glare in your eye and say I did it, as if he alone had overcome everything the world and his body could throw across his path. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take much effort to read (or misread) the book that way.

[6] At some point in the book, Davison reveals his sister Susan has cerebral palsy and has won (literally) scores of athletic awards. Again, this reprises the implied family life—that all children “are” children regardless of “condition”—and that with that kind of support (or, less convincingly, by sheer force of will) one may not just survive, but triumph. Again, Davison gives us little specific background here, so without doing the extra work of a reader to fill in all of the gaps, certain “default” readings of this narrative will likely emerge. And, again, I don’t mean this as a criticism but rather for the hideous starkness of comparison it sets up for the girl with cerebral palsy who haemorrhaged to death.

[7] Assuming, of course, that I’ve not just failed to read the book correctly.

[8] Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press

[9] See Osborne, L. (1993). The poisoned embrace: a brief history of sexual pessimism. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books

[10] This also doesn’t mean people wouldn’t, can’t, or haven’t made such claims.

[11] Judeo-Christian apologetics.

[12] Aggravating because if “god” deals the girl this hand, we may console ourselves with the monstrousness of his dereliction and thus dismiss the issue once and for all, however unhappily. Without “god” as a whipping-deity, we must “blame” nature or the world or ourselves, but without providing any satisfactory answer. The aggravation serves as the sign that we might change things, somehow, someday. Blaming “god” washes our hands of the matter and lies that we should not think to challenge the girl’s “fate” at all.

[13] Quoting Maude from Harold and Maude.


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